Monday, December 26, 2016

Interview with Hiroshi Katagiri

Film-making was something I never really imagined myself doing, even though I've always been drawn to films as a media. Gof ya-hu manegga' mubi siha. Lao gi minagahet taya' nai hu konsidera na sina mama'titinas yu' mubi siha. Over the past few years I've been able to work on several projects, sometimes as just a consultant, sometimes as a supporter and a few times as one of the primary filmmakers. It has been exciting and naturally time-consuming.

Here is one film that I did a small amount of consulting for, with the help of Ken Gofigan Kuper who is attending graduate school at UH Manoa.

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Q&A with Filmmaker Hiroshi Katagiri
by Ben Salas II
The Sunday Post
November 6, 2016

Throughout the years, Saipan has long been associated with many things: World War II, tourism, garment factories, commonwealth politics, Chamorro and Carolinian culture, and as a Pacific island paradise. And while various media entities have used Saipan as a shooting location for everything from Japanese tourism ads to Korean TV dramas, the island has never made any Top 10 lists of film production destinations. A Bollywood or Busan it is not.

That’s what makes Hiroshi Katagiri’s selection of Saipan so special as the setting for his feature-length directorial debut with the horror film, “Gehenna: Where Death Lives.” As a genre-defining creature designer, sculptor, and makeup effects mastermind, Katagiri, has worked on blockbuster films like Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien v Predator Requiem, and The Hunger Games. With 25 years of film industry experience and over 40 feature films to his credit, Katagiri is far from a novice. The fact that he saw a different kind of potential in Saipan as a setting bodes well for the CNMI and Guam’s emerging film industry.

I reached out to Katagiri to ask about his career and what drew him toward our corner of the world. [This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Please share a little about your beginnings and how you got into the creature creation and special effects business.

I left Japan when I was 18, after graduating from high school. The whole reason I moved to America was to pursue student internships as a special makeup effects artist, designer, and sculptor for the movie industry. I spent 10 months in Washington studying English language before eventually relocating to LA. I was fortunate enough to start as an intern when my field in the industry was still pretty new, because it allowed me to build a nice work portfolio. After about seven or eight years of working in the industry, I began working for the late Stan Winston. He is a legend in my line of work. His studio was working on two big Steven Spielberg productions at the time; “A.I.” and “Jurassic Park III.” They were holding openings for skilled makeup and effects artists so I guess it was just about the timing.

How much did you know about Saipan prior to writing the script for “Gehenna?” Had you traveled here before?

I had never been to Saipan prior to shooting “Gehenna.” However, due to its historical significance during World War II and the Battle of Saipan, I was quite familiar with the island. I think all Japanese know at least a little about Saipan. At the same time, there were certain things about Saipan that I knew could only be learned by going there.

What about Saipan drew you to it? Why were you convinced it would be a perfect location for a horror film?

Shooting on Saipan actually worked to my advantage. This was my first feature-length film as a director, so I was working on a limited budget. I needed a location that was isolated, limited size, and not as costly to shoot at. I did a lot of research about the fierce fighting that took place in Saipan between the Americans and the Japanese during WWII. I was fascinated with the concept of a Japanese underground military base and built a story around that setting. I needed a place that did not feel too much like Japan or too much like the U.S, but somewhere in between. Yet, I also needed it to feel unique. Saipan was perfect.

Times have changed since the days of the tourism economic boom that once brought many Japanese investors to Saipan. The market is different. Do you think a film like “Gehenna” can spark interest in Saipan as a shooting location for other filmmakers?

Well, I know in Asia, Korea is a good market to continue to pitch to. They have a very strong film industry. For Japan, you could market to Japanese music artists to shoot their music videos [in Saipan] because music videos are a really big thing these days, especially in Asia. The biggest challenge to overcome is limited infrastructure and the lack of readily available filmmaking resources on island. The upside, like I mentioned earlier, is it is it relatively inexpensive and quick to move from one shooting location to another. There is strong potential though. The more people learn about my production and how shooting was fractioned so that about two-thirds of the film was shot in LA and about one-third in Saipan, they might be inspired by that. It could give them some ideas on how to shoot in a place like Saipan and still make a quality film with high production value.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but from the trailers I can tell it has a distinct classical Japanese horror feel to it, almost reminiscent of “Ju-on” and “Ringu.” What would you say separates the Japanese horror genre from U.S. horror films?

The most obvious difference between traditional Japanese horror and traditional U.S. horror is in the motives of the killer or the villain. Usually, in American horror, it is made clear what the killer wants to do. He wants to kill people and he chases them down. In traditional Japanese horror, the intentions of the killer or the villain remains unclear until the end. It remains a mystery why the evil is doing what it does. The good guys have to investigate and find out. [Fans of the genre may have] noticed how many Western and American horror films of the last few years have been remaking Japanese horror films, or are now using the Japanese formula of horror.

Were you familiar with local superstitions and legends from Saipan before visiting?

No. Actually, I was not. All of my research was mainly done on WWII, combined with my knowledge of certain Japanese superstitions. But when I traveled to Saipan and learned more about the locals and their culture, I became inspired to incorporate some of their legends and superstitions into the story. It made the story scarier and more powerful. It made it more unique and interesting.

What was it like working with a Saipanese crew?

They were all so friendly and accommodating. One of the local hires, Keoni, was always attentive and went out of his way to make all of the cast and crew comfortable. When he knew I was thirsty, he gathered fresh coconuts from the nearest trees for me to drink. I got the VIP treatment! (Laughs) The people at Marianas Visitors Authority, the people we needed to get permits from, went the extra mile to take care of our transportation needs and made sure we always had private security escorts. Even the staff at our hotel were extremely helpful and friendly. I have lived in LA for many years and that is not something you experience very often. People in Saipan have such great hospitality and friendliness.

What advice do you have for other independent filmmakers seeking to use a Kickstarter campaign to fund their projects?

I can recommend Kickstarter but it is not easy. You must first focus on the limits of your budget and envision the cheapest way possible that you can accomplish your production. Know what resources you already have available to you so that you can save more money. For your first Kickstarter production, plan your story around the reality of your production limits. If you know your film will not raise $1 million, do not write a script that calls for a lot of expensive special effects that you cannot afford. Expect to do a lot by yourself at first. But if you make things clear for your funders, they will like that. People will be drawn to your passion. Show them and they will start believing.

Katagiri’s independent horror film, “Gehenna: Where Death Lives,” screens in various film festivals this Halloween season. To read the Sunday Post’s previous reporting on “Gehenna” click here.

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